Legacy of Lei Making: Meleana Estes

Interview by: Daniel Ito

Lei making is deeply rooted in the DNA of Meleana Estes. Her grandmother, Amelia Ana Kaopua Bailey, was a master lei maker, whose craft was widely respected in Hawai‘i. Much like her tutu, Meleana has a following for her haku lei or what Snapchat defines as the “flower power crown.”

Lei making is not a Millennial fad for the 27-year-old, Native Hawaiian. Rather it’s one of the many talents of this creative. Meleana is also a photo stylist and designer who went to fashion school in New York after graduating from Boston College. When she returned home to Hawai‘i, she rediscovered her passion for lei making. As a result, she is perpetuating her grandma’s legacy while stoking out the next generation on this Hawaiian cultural practice.

While unpacking from a Kaua‘i trip and repacking for a Colorado, we talked with Meleana about her grandmother and the recent resurgence of the haku lei’s popularity.

Who taught you how to make a lei?

My grandmother was a very renowned leimaker in Hawai‘i so I learned from just being with her all the time. Sitting with her and watching her make lei at her house in Mānoa. Helping her at her workshops and when I was younger I would drive her around. I learned how to make leis when I was young, and I would make them on Mei Day and those occasions, but I was much more interested in surfing and playing sports. My sister was the big lei maker because she was a hula dancer. But [lei making] was always around me and apart of me, but I didn’t take on my own style and my own particular interest until five years ago. Moving home from New York I sort of started to feel a responsibility to make a beautiful haku for someone’s birthday. It sort of evolved into something I would do all the time.

How did living in New York influence your passion for lei making?

 I think that was a cool experience because when I was [in New York] and designing for companies I had a really specific person that I wanted to design for and dress. I realized when I was there that I love fashion, but I really did have a particular customer in mind and definitely my muse has always been Hawai‘i and the Hawai‘i girl. On top of that, I think where the flowers play in is that the essence of this girl is wearing a lei in my mind because that is how I grew up. I always had a lei on my head and I was always adorned by my grandmother.

Is there a difference between a haku lei and a lei po‘o?

 They are actually interchangeable. “Po‘o” is “head” so a lei po‘o is a “head lei.” A haku lei is a lei made in the traditional style without any thread. There are three different techniques within that term “haku lei.”

What are these techniques and which do you teach at the workshops?

The technique I teach is “wili” which is “to wrap” or “wind.” I like that technique personally because I have that control of the flowers.  The other technique is actually called “haku” and “haku” actually means “to braid.” You braid two or more stems of green and flowers that is more the Tahitian style when you see them braiding the ti leaf and adding a flower. That style is super beautiful and I love that, too. Then “hili” is the third style and that is when you just braid one type of string.

The haku lei is more popular than ever! What would attribute to this resurgence?

You know what? It’s crazy and I totally agree! You know I hate to say it out loud, but I’m totally going to: I think things like Coachella and other Bohemian trends started bringing attention to the “flower crown.” So I think that the “flower crown” is sort of like a lei po‘o. I think that trend has actually brought a lot of attention to the haku lei because a lot of people are wearing flowers on their head. I think it’s really cool that people don’t just want to wear a flower crown. They want to know how to make something in the traditional way because the flower crowns are actually just made from cardboard. I think the flower crown gets a lot of play and so do the haku lei, but I just love when people want to learn a traditional way.